Burning your ships

The ISS chief scientist mentioned in her talk that nations have an economic need to explore and used the Ming dynasty destruction of the Chinese navy as an example. Well, I must have been asleep that day in World History class, because I didn’t know about the deliberate destruction of Chinese ships.

The Ming dynasty started with Zhu Yuanzhang and his huge navy at the Battle of Lake Poyang in 1363 (though he would not be emperor for five more years). The Chinese improved their shipbuilding and their navigational techniques over time, though the emphasis seemed to be more on riverine than oceangoing ships, to move materials within the country. Whether they were the best in the world or not, I’ll leave that argument to the historians. The turning point for the Chinese navy seems to be after the “treasure ship” voyages of Zheng He from 1405 to 1433.

From this to nothing.

Some of the treasure ships appeared to be built with “bigger is better” in mind, which is fine for making impressions on foreign dignitaries, not so much for the people back home paying the bills. Other domestic troubles included a long war with northern Vietnam, fighting with the Mongols, and the emperor bankrupting the country by building the Forbidden City. Zheng He’s trading was halted under one emperor and restored under the next. When Zheng He died during his seventh voyage, that was the end of the treasure ships. The Hai jin, or sea ban, was enforced, shipyards fell into disrepair, and the ships were either burned or left to rot (depending on what source you read).

The Confucians of the court believed that merchants were lower class, because they weren’t the ones producing any goods. They also believed that they didn’t need to seek trade, that their customers for silk and spices would find them. The destruction of their navy left them vulnerable and isolated.

I can see some parallels here. The Space Shuttles are being moved to museums. Is the Space Launch System just “bigger is better”? (Or, God forbid, the LCS of space?) Do we have a goal other than a generic idea of exploration? Will domestic problems hold us back, even though NASA gets only half a cent out of every tax dollar? The International Space Station has been built, and the chief scientist predicted that only 20% of the research capabilities have been used to date. For now, we’re still stuck in low Earth orbit, but that’s not a bad place to be. There’s still more to come, whether it’s spinoffs, commercialization of space, or a stepping stone to exploration.

And I’m a day late because July 11 is Maritime Day in China.

4 thoughts on “Burning your ships”

  1. The Space Launch System is only armed with a single, optically aimed 57mm? What if the Romulans show up?

  2. This also an excellent argument against those who advocate protectionist trade measures.

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